RALEIGH, N.C. -- Republicans won a vacant North Carolina House seat in a special election on Tuesday. But that victory was expected, and all eyes were on another House race in the state that could provide clues about President Donald Trump's reelection prospects and Republican chances of retaking the House in 2020.
Physician Greg Murphy defeated Democrat Allen Thomas in a district along the state's Atlantic coast and will succeed the late GOP Rep. Walter Jones Jr., who died in February after 24 years in Congress. Trump won the district comfortably in 2016.
"One down, one to go - Greg Murphy is projected to win in the Great State of North Carolina! #NC03," Trump tweeted Tuesday night.
In the night's more compelling race, Republican Dan Bishop, a conservative state senator, was hoping visits to the GOP-leaning district Monday by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would boost him to victory. At a rally in a Fayetteville arena, Trump told a MAGA-hat-wearing crowd that backing Bishop would send a message to "the America-hating left."
Bishop's conservative credentials include authorship of the state's 2016 law that dictated which public bathrooms transgender people could use. The law was repealed after it prompted a national outcry and boycotts that The Associated Press estimated cost North Carolina $3.7 billion.
Centrist Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine turned financier of solar energy projects, was banking on the district's moderate suburban voters to carry him over the top. McCready was already a familiar name in the district: He narrowly trailed in an election for the seat last November that was later invalidated after evidence surfaced of vote tampering.
Women and college-educated voters have abandoned Trump in droves over his conservative social policies and vitriolic rhetoric on immigration and race.
"I am a registered Republican, but I am fed up with the agenda of the Republican Party," said Bob Southern, 75, of Mint Hill, outside Charlotte. "I am so disappointed in this president, and he frightens me very much."
Southern said he voted for McCready.
Bishop was counting on the district's Republican-leaning tendencies.
"Bishop, his policies follow my convictions -- after hearing Bishop, knowing that he's for the Second Amendment and he's against illegal immigration," said Susie Sisk, 73, another retiree from Mint Hill. The registered Democrat said she voted for Bishop.
Late-summer special elections generally attract such low turnout that their results aren't predictive of future general elections. Even so, a McCready victory, or even a narrow defeat, would be a blinking yellow light for the GOP.
Such an outcome would signal that the Democrats' 2018 string of victories in suburban districts in red states including Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas could persist. Trump won the North Carolina district by 11 percentage points in 2016, and the seat has been held by Republicans since 1963, and a loss Tuesday would be a demoralizing preface to party's campaigns next year.
Suburban defections would also jeopardize the reelection prospects of Trump, who's already facing slipping poll numbers. Limiting the erosion of those voters will be crucial for him to retain swing states like North Carolina, which he won by less than 4 percentage points in 2016. It would also make the GOP's uphill effort to regain the House majority even tougher.
A McCready win would also let Democrats brag that they'll control a congressional district that covers a piece of Charlotte, where next summer's Republican National Convention will be held to renominate Trump.
The district stretches from Charlotte, one of the nation's financial nerve centers, through its flourishing eastern suburbs and into less prosperous rural counties along the South Carolina line.
McCready reported spending $4.5 million on his campaign, outpacing Bishop's $1.8 million. Top GOP outside groups poured in $6.4 million, outpacing Democrats' $2.9 million and nearly evening the expenditures.
Bishop, 55, bound himself tightly to Trump, backing his proposed border wall with Mexico and accusing Trump critics of being intent on "destroying him." In a TV spot airing Election Day, he said his opponent is "backed by radicals" as the screen flashed the faces of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and outspoken liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
McCready, 36, has used his creation of a company that's financed solar energy projects to cast himself as a job creator and environmental champion. He's also focused on containing health care costs and continued running a spot featuring his trademark promise to prioritize "country over party."
The district received a black eye this year when state officials voided its 2018 election, which McCready lost by 900 votes to then-GOP candidate Mark Harris. That decision followed allegations of ballot tampering by a Republican political consultant, and Harris opted to not run again.
Another jolt of notoriety occurred in July when Trump staged a rally for Bishop in nearby Greenville. Trump said four Democratic women of color should "go back" to their home countries, though all but one was born in the U.S. The crowd began chanting "Send her back."
Republicans' flagging chances of winning back the House have been aggravated by announcements from 15 GOP lawmakers so far that they won't seek reelection next year. Democrats control the House 235-197, with one independent and two vacancies.
Associated Press writer Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.